Finance is beating football and it's the poor fans who pay the penalties

The beautiful game is a costly business to follow, but staunch supporters do not begrudge a penny of what they have to pay
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The Independent Online

THERE IS nothing cheap about being a football supporter: ask Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil billionaire who has so far spent £200m to buy Chelsea Football Club and fund the biggest sports spending spree seen in Britain. Or you could ask any of the hundreds of thousands of devoted fans who will spend the coming nine months, and often thousands of pounds, following their clubs.

Unlike many of those fans, Mr Abramovich can easily afford his football fancy. His fortune is worth an estimated £4.3bn, meaning he has spent just more than 4.5 per cent of his worth on his new passion for the London club.

Compare that to a Chelsea season ticket-holder who will pay £805 to sit in the Upper East Stand at the club's Stamford Bridge ground. To spend the same percentage of their money as Mr Abramovich has they would have to have some £18,000 in assets. A study in March by IBM Business Solutions, showed the average UK adult has £16,100 in assets, excluding equity locked in their home.

Football is an expensive passion. Adult season tickets for Premiership football clubs typically cost £400 to £500. Arsenal supporters can only dream of such good value: their club is the UK's most expensive, with tickets starting at £795 and rising to £1,230. Everton supporters can snap up a season ticket in Goodison Park's worst seats for as little as £256, the cheapest in the country.

Paul O'Callaghan, a 23-year-old teacher and Everton supporter from Liverpool, says: "My season ticket this year cost me £314, up from £288 last year. It is a pretty big increase, but I still feel I get good value over 19 games. I think Liverpool's are up to more than £500 this year; at that sort of price, I wouldn't go."

A home season ticket is only the start of the cost. Many supporters will spend as much, or more, travelling to away matches. An Aston Villa supporter taking the club coach to the match at Portsmouth today will pay £47. As matches last 90 minutes, that is equal to 52p per minute of football. Paying the same rate at the cinema would mean an average 120-minute film would cost £62.66.

If that seems expensive, think what else could be done with the money. A 20-year-old who invested the £500 cost of an annual season ticket in a pension for 45 years could expect to have a fund worth some £274,000 by the age of 65. That assumes investment growth of 7 per cent per annum and that the cost of the season ticket rises in line with earnings over the next 45 years.

Mr O'Callaghan says: "I don't have much savings, because I am paying off student loans and a professional studies loan. Luckily, my pension is paid for because I am a teacher. But it would take a fair bit to convince me to give up my ticket. I would rather have it than go on a holiday."

The cost of supporting a club does not stop at the turnstile either. Merchandising is a multimillion-pound earner for the country's top clubs. Manchester United, the undoubted world champions of football commercialism, turned over £10.2m in merchandise in its last financial year.

Top of the merchandising money-spinners are replica football shirts, which are de rigueur fashion for many fans on match day, at a cost of £30 to £40. For the dedicated fan, there are a host of other ways to show support. Blackburn Rovers fans can buy curtains in the club's blue and white for £27.99, Wolverhampton Wanderers fans can get to and from the ground on £175 Wolves push-bikes, and Manchester City fans can take out their frustrations on a set of three monogrammed golf balls for £6.99.

Clubs have stretched their commercial tentacles to envelope their fans' finances, too. Almost all of the Premiership clubs and many of the lower division clubs offer credit cards issued by either MBNA, a US credit card specialist, or Bank of Scotland (BoS).

Despite the claim of some clubs to have "negotiated" special deals using the buying power of their supporters, the cards usually offer middle-of-the-road value, with 0 per cent interest rate for balance transfers and ongoing rates of 15.9 per cent a year for MBNA cards and 14.9 per cent for BoS cards. Fans can do much better: Abbey National's online bank, Cahoot, charges as little as 8 per cent, the UK's lowest.

Many clubs also offer savings accounts, typically with awful rates of interest. The Wolves Premier Gold savings account, operated by Staffordshire Building Society, pays a miserly 0.25 per cent gross a year for balances under £500, while a balance of just under £10,000 still attracts a rate of only 0.84 per cent.

Chris Shelley, product co-ordinator at Staffordshire, says: "The account mirrors our easy access account. It is a branch-based account with no penalties for withdrawals and the rate reflects that. It pays 1 per cent of the total balance of the account to the club to support football."

Tom McPhail, of the independent financial adviser Hargreaves Lansdown, says: "You would be better off donating a small amount of money to your club and keeping your savings in a tax-efficient Isa, or a more generous savings account." ING Direct pays 4.22 per cent gross per annum on all balances over £1, making it the best-value account in the UK, the rates analyst Moneyfacts says.

When it comes to footie-based financial services, Manchester United again scores heavily. Through the club, fans can take out savings accounts that offer bonuses depending on the team's performance, as well as insurance, personal loans and even mortgages.

Most recently it launched an offer allowing fans to buy their season ticket with the Manchester United credit card and pay no interest for six months on the purchase.

Steven Falk, director of Financial Services at Manchester United Finance, says: "The offer is the first of its kind for a football club. A season ticket is a major purchase for a fan each year, and this way they can spread the payments without accruing any interest."

Fans who do not follow Manchester United and cannot afford the cost of a season ticket will have to rely on more traditional loans. Thanks to near- record low interest rates, this is not overly expensive at present.

A one-year, £1,000 loan from Nationwide Building Society at 7.9 per cent will cost a total of £1,041. Many lenders offer minimum loans of £1,000 and will not lend money for less than a year.

Using an overdraft can be a cheaper option because the money can be paid back quicker. But many banks charge higher rates of interest on overdrafts than on loans, so it will pay to work out the cost first.

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